While some aspects of esoteric endeavour can be highly personal and private there are others that are profoundly relevant to other people, including those who aren’t necessarily into all that other spooky occult stuff. The work of the celebrant or priest(ess) is one such example of this.
Over the years I’ve been asked to perform numerous handfastings, namings, house blessings and, so far, one requiem. Many of my magical colleagues have also done rites of this type. Sometimes we are asked by people who are card-carrying pagans, while at other times I’ve been asked by ‘friends of friends’; people who might want a ceremony that sits outside of the Anglican Christian framework which remains (though in a greatly attenuated form) as the default style for rites of passage among many folk in the British Isles.
The work of the celebrant provides some measure of the significant social role played by shamans in indigenous cultures. While it’s actually not that easy (or respectful or ethnographically meaningful) to generalise about shamanism and it’s social meaning in different societies, it is perhaps fair to point out that the shaman’s role, in many cultures, is seen as being socially relevant. For all our trappings of magic circles, demonic seals, mystical titles, temple bling and the rest – to many ‘outsiders’ much of occulture looks little different from slightly-bonkers live action role play. However, by being asked by our broader community to help provide rites of transition, we are performing the key role played by esoteric specialists (be they shamans, priests or others) in many cultures both past and present.
Creating a good ritual is important. I was recently asked to provide a marriage ceremony for two friends who were getting wed on the island of Sicily. The rite I created (in close consultation with the happy couple) had to make sense, and be emotionally moving for them plus 10 British guest and 40 Sicilians (from the bride’s family). Fortunately the neo-pagan canon and my own experience meant that I was able to hold the space successfully to create an experience which uplifted everyone there. Simple, almost universally understood acts – exchanging rings, asking people to give a blessing and offer a candle to the couple, a circle of flowers within which they might stand, consecrating their union with earth, with water, air and fire as they held hands, and finally a kiss. This is the language of simple ritual, handily getting round the need for too much translation for either English or Italian speakers. People cried – in a good way – and one chap (who actually turned out to be a member of the Carabinieri) was really taken with the whole thing (‘magificane , bello , spirituale!’), which was nice.
As with much group ritual, creating a good handfasting or other ceremony is often a collaborative work. It’s important to be able to listen to the needs of the people involved as much as coming with one’s own preconceptions about how things ‘should’ be done. It’s important to be able to adapt to local circumstances too. For example at a recent wedding that Nikki Wyrd and I did in North Wales, we wanted to incorporate the ‘traditional’ jumping over the broomstick. Rather than do this at the ceremony itself we waited until the morning after (the main rite took place by the sea and carrying a broom down the scramble to the isolated cove we were using wouldn’t have been easy, moreover the dramatic reveal of the broom itself would have been spoiled). Given the style of the people we were acting as celebrants to, rather than a classic besom we instead bound ribbons around their own yard brush. Combining the magical and mundane in a way we judged would both amuse and move them.
The practice of facilitating rites of passage also helps the individual magician to maintain an outward focus for their work, and not to disappear up their own ouroboros backside, into an introspective haze of rarefied magic-isms. Doing social ritual means understanding how people work, what is likely to move them, what ritual techniques will work in different settings, and being able to hold the space in a way that privileges the experience of those undertaking the ritual rather than the authority of the magician themselves. This Work is a service and one that I typically give for free (though I generally accept offers to cover my expenses). As I’ve written before: if we work with spirits the most important spirits we meet on a daily basis are other humans. Finding good ways to work with these spirits, especially when we are entrusted to help them in rites of passage, is for me a great honour. Being asked to do this kind of work is also a confirmation of my status in the minds of others. Not as some super powerful magician (or whatever) but as someone who can blend the authority and skill necessary to hold the ritual space with the sensitivity required to respond to the needs of others.
The test for whether one is actually a shaman or a priest is not how we like to style ourselves but how others refer to us. And while one might be mindful of the sort of ego inflation such titles may engender there is also the need to honestly face the truth. That the magic I do does have a utility and relevance in my wider community, and so I am grateful to the universe that I can perform this Great Work for others.